Famous Sayings and Their Bizarre Origins!


I love a good saying and try to use them often as I feel they provoke a good feeling and a sense of humour in conversation. It is funny when you use a common famous saying when speaking to a foreigner who may not have heard the phrase before and they give you that perplexed look. I love being able to enlighten them with my knowledge of these famous sayings and their bizarre origins. So I decided to do a post on it, for entertainments sake. A lot of us use these famous sayings on a regular basis but don’t know much about their origins, only what they refer to. Here are the most common ones I know of, in no particular order – and their bizarre origins!

In stitches – meaning to be laughing really hard (often perceived as laughing so hard you get a stitch-like cramp)

Actual origin – The phrase was first used by Shakespeare in “Twelfth Night” in 1602. “If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me. Yond gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado; for there is no Christian, that means to be saved by believing rightly, can ever believe such impossible passages of grossness. He’s in yellow stockings”.

Flogging a dead horse – meaning to be trying something that seems doomed to fail.

Origin – a reference to work which a person had been paid in advance (and possibly already spent). This dates from the 17th century and is referred to in Richard Brome’s play “The Antipodes” in 1638. “He cur’d a country gentleman that fell mad. For spending of his land before he sold it; That is, ’twas sold to pay his debts – all went. That way for a dead horse, as one would say!” To ‘flog’ a dead horse, meaning to beat a dead horse is obviously pointless. 

Raining cats and dogs – meaning it is raining heavily (more than a light shower)

Origin – the most common explanation for the saying (even though there are a few!) is that in the olden days homes had thatched roofs. Domestic animals such as cats and dogs would like to hide in the thatch. In heavy rain, the animals would either be washed out of the thatch, or rapidly abandon it for better shelter.

The old ball and chain – often used when referring to ones significant other in jest (a partner who controls or demands commitment in some way)

Origin – in prison in the olden days an actual ball and chain would be attached to a prisoner. This was a heavy metal ball secured to a prisoner’s leg made of a chain and manacle to weigh them down and hold them back.

To ‘read the riot act’ – meaning to give someone a lecture or a stern talking to regarding their behaviour (often used to reprimand someone)

Introduced in 1714, the actual “Riot Act” was a proclamation which was written up and could be stated to any rowdy group (12 or more people) who were disturbing the peace. It was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain that authorized local authorities to declare any group of twelve or more people to be unlawfully assembled, and thus have to disperse or face punitive action. The act, whose long title was “An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters”. Read the full description here.

Burning the candle at both ends – meaning to be living at too hectic a pace to continue (often referred to people who work day and night or party too hard and don’t get enough rest)

Origin – the saying began some time during the early 18th century when candles were considered valuable and used as lighting. To be burning the candle at both ends was considered reckless and wasteful.

Giving someone ‘the cold shoulder’ meaning to be cold with someone or aloof and distant.

Origin – when someone outstayed their welcome or returned too often to someones home they were shown they were no longer welcome by being served a cold shoulder of meat for dinner. The first reference was made in print back in 1816 – “The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther”. ‘Cauld shouther’ being Scottish dialect for cold shoulder from Sir Walter Scott’s “The Antiquary”.

Bite the bullet – meaning to go for it, stop pondering over something and do it. Face your fear and get it over with.

Origin – back in the day, sometimes a patient would be made clench a bullet in their teeth as a way to cope with the extreme pain of a surgical procedure without anaesthetic. Yikes!

Waiting for the other shoe to drop – meaning to be expecting something to occur after an event that is most likely inevitable.

Origin –  the phrase began when referring to noisy New York City neighbours – “A common experience of tenement living and other similar style housing in New York City during the manufacturing boom of the late 19th and early 20th century”. A tenant would hear a shoe drop on the floor upstairs and they would inevitably wait for the other shoe to drop.

Cat got your tongue – meaning you are speechless or unwilling to discuss something.

Origin – most likely originating from ancient Egypt, where liars and blasphemers’ tongues were cut out and fed to the cats.

Paint the town red – meaning to run wild on a spree of recklessness.

Origin – theory’s include the phrase comes from the Marquis of Waterford and a group of friends who ran riot in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray (England), painting the town’s toll-bar and several buildings red. It was also coined a phrase in America after the vision of the red from bonfires, the heat from over-stoked paddle-wheel boilers, and town demarcation lines in the Wild West.

Run amok – meaning to run wild in a frenzied manner.

Origin – originally the word ‘amok’ comes from Southeast Asia, where ‘amok’ (variously spelled amuk, amuck, amuco) meant ‘a murderous frenzy or rage’. This derived from the state of mind of the Amuco – a class of ‘death or glory’ warriors who were employed in local power struggles in Java and Malaysia. Their belief was that fallen warriors became favourites of the gods, whereas failed missions were punished by dishonour and death.

Rub up the wrong way – meaning to irritate or bemuse someone.

Origin – Cats do not like their fur to be rubbed up the wrong way and so the cat reference “rub up the wrong way” originated in 1819 in “Aunt Mary’s Tales”. There is another reference to about a plant in “A General System of Nature” published in 1806.

Butter them up – meaning to flatter or be nice to someone in order to get something from them.

Origin – like butter to be ‘spreading’ nice words on a person. The phrase likely originated in ancient India where they used to throw balls of butter at statues of gods to ask for a favour.

Bring them down a peg or two – meaning to make someone realize that they are less talented or important than they think they are.

Origin – pegs were used to regulate the amount of drink taken from a barrel, or those that controlled the hoisting of the colours (flags) of ships.

Pappe with An Hatchet, 1589 – “Now haue at you all my gaffers of the rayling religion, tis I that must take you a peg lower.”

Joseph Mead’s Letters, 1625 – “A-talking of the brave times that would be shortly… when… the Bishop of Chester, that bore himself so high, should be hoisted a peg higher to his little ease.”

Samuel Butler’s “Hudibras”, 1664 – “We still have worsted all your holy Tricks,… And took your Grandees down a peg.” – from

Get off your high horse – to tell someone to stop behaving as though they are superior.

Origin – In medieval England, a person’s rank was reflected by the size of the horse he rode. A noble or a person of importance would ride a large and expensive horse, one much taller and bigger than the horses ridden by commoners. The phrase “on one’s high horse” came to mean “superior.”

Show true colours – meaning to reveal ones true personality or character.

Origin – During the 1600’s  “to sail under false colours” was a trick used by pirates of flying the flag of a nation who were friendly to the ship they were planning to attack. This would allow the pirate vessel to come close enough to attack and board it with surprise bombardment.

Spill the beans – meaning to confess or to let out a secret (sometimes maliciously or in ruining a surprise).

Origin – the phrase originated in ancient Greece, where people cast secret votes by putting white or black beans in a jar (a white bean indicated a positive vote and a black bean was negative). If someone accidentally or deliberately knocked over the jar, the beans would pour out and the ‘secret’ would be revealed early, so they would have “spilled the beans”.

Ears are burning – meaning you are being talked about behind your back.

Origin – There was an old folk belief that if other people were talking about you behind your back, you would feel your ears burning. In Roman times they believed that a burning sensation or redness in the right ear meant the talk is positive while if the left ear burned, the subject was of evil intent.

Rule of thumb – meaning something not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation but a general rule as such.

Origin – thought to be originally derived from the belief that English law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick so long as it is was no thicker than his thumb. In 1782, Judge Sir Francis Buller is reported as having made this legal ruling but it was ridiculed and never actually proven to exist. It is more likely referring to the fact that thumbs have been used to estimate things such as the size of an object or rough measurement guide.

Break the ice – meaning to overcome a sense of social awkwardness and put people at ease.

Origin – The first reference to the phrase was made by Samuel Butler in 1678 who used it in his poem Hudibras “The Oratour – At last broke silence, and the Ice.”

Push the envelope – meaning to approach, exceed, or extend the limits of what is considered possible.

Origin – Pushing the envelope is a mathematical reference to the flight envelope of an aircraft – combinations of speed, altitude, range and speed or speed and stress on the aircraft’s frame that are considered the limits of the plane’s capabilities.

Bite off more than you can chew – meaning to take on more than you can handle.

Origin – in America in the late 1800s, it’s possible that it originated at the time when people chewed tobacco. When they were offered tobacco, some people would take a big bite of the tobacco – much more than they could chew and thus having to spit it out in haste.

Pull out all the stops – meaning to do everything in ones power to make something happen.

Origin – referring to the construction of pipe organs. The instruments have stops to control the air flow through the pipes and pulling them out increases the musical volume.

Leave in the lurch – meaning to abandon someone.

Origin – Most likely from a 16th century French gambling game which was played with dice and was supposedly a bit like backgammon. It was called lourche or l’ourche, also in the phrase demeurer lourche, to lose embarrassingly badly.

Make a beeline for – meaning to go straight for someone or something quickly.

Origin – reference to the honey bee when it finds nectar sources. It signals to the other bees then they fly directly to the source of the nectar, so they ‘make a beeline’ for it.

Give them the 3rd degree – meaning to interrogate/question intensely.

Origin – a form of interrogation known as the “Third Degree” of master mason in Freemasonry (1772) which included an interrogation ceremony. Police used this interrogation method on crime suspects.

Caught red-handed – meaning to be caught stealing or doing something bold in the act.

Origin – dates back to 15th century Scotland and probably referring to people caught with actual blood on their hands from murder or poaching.

Crocodile tears – meaning to have fake tears over something or acting upset.

Origin – derived from a mid 16th century belief that crocodiles wept while devouring or luring their prey. While crocodiles do have tear ducts, they weep to lubricate their eyes, typically when they have been out of water for a long time and their eyes begin to dry out. However, evidence suggests this could also be triggered by feeding.

Honeymoon – a couples holiday after their wedding day.

Origin – A newlywed couple drank mead (the honey) during their first moon of marriage. “To be bréefe, they were marryed: well that daye was past with dauncing and ‘Honney moone’ it was for a mo­neth after.” In other words, two people got married and then spent time with each other for a month.

By hook or by crook – meaning by all means necessary something will get done.

Origin – derives from the custom in medieval England of allowing peasants to take whatever deadwood from royal forests they wanted. They could pull it down with a shepherd’s crook or cut with a reaper’s bill-hook.

Play it by ear – meaning to wait and see how something pans out before making plans. To go with the flow, as such.

Origin – to be able to play music without having to read it was the original meaning.

Flash in the pan – meaning something with no long term hold such as ‘a one hit wonder’.

Origin – Flintlock muskets used to have small pans to hold charges of gunpowder. An attempt to fire the musket in which the gunpowder flared up without a bullet being fired was a ‘flash in the pan’.

Kick the bucket – meaning ‘to die’.

Origin – kick the bucket often referred to death by hanging which was common in the olden days. Another possible origin was in the slaughter of animals where they would spasm after death and kick the bucket underneath them while hanging.

Bucket list – a list of things to do before you die.

Origin – I guess we can interpret the bucket list with things to do before you kick the bucket. Another theory is that you start life with an empty bucket and in order to fill it, you fulfil your dreams, therefore filling the bucket.

To ‘go cold turkey’ meaning to wean yourself off something without assistance

Origin – most likely the combination of goosepimples and what William Burroughs calls ‘the cold burn’ that addicts suffer as they kick the habit. A cold and clammy skin appearance which is associated with withdrawals from heroin, alcohol or similar addictive substances. Cold turkey also refers to the lack of preparation involved with serving cold turkey for a meal. Probably linked to the abrupt manner in which an addict stops using, with a lack of preperation as such.

To ‘meet a deadline’ – meaning to be on time to the exact date/time with your delivery of something.

Origin – This comes from a term in prison camps during the American Civil War, when it referred to a physical line or boundary beyond which prisoners were shot. A dead line. 

Show them the ropes – meaning to train or show people how something is done.

Origin – originates from sailing where understanding how to handle the ropes is necessary to operate a ship and its sails – an essential maritime skill.

Pot calling the kettle black – a hypocritical person who accuses another of wrongdoing whilst clearly acting similarly or having similar traits.

Origin – In the olden days everything was cooked over an open fire. Meaning the pots got blackened regardless of the materials used to make them. Many were, in fact, copper and would be shiny when polished, but all were blackened by the soot from the fire. Hence, the pot calling the kettle black was considered hypocritical as the pot was also inevitably black.

Piss poor – meaning you have literally no money.

Origin – the common use of human urine was a way to tan animal skins in olden times. Families used to pee in a pot and once a day it was sold to the local tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were considered as ‘piss poor’.

Extend an olive branch – meaning to offer a helping hand or forgiveness (another chance even)

Origin – This originates from The Book of Genesis (The Bible). A sign that the flood was over was when an olive branch was brought back to the ark by a dove. A peace sign as such.

Break a leg – meaning to wish someone a great performance on stage.

Origin – A well known superstition in the acting world is to wish someone luck ahead of their performance on stage. Bernard Sobel‘s 1948 “The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays”, he writes about theatrical superstitions – “before a performance actors never wish each other good luck, but say ‘I hope you break a leg’. However, there are other references from the 20’s but they all point to the same meaning.

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So those are all the famous sayings I can think of and their bizarre origins! Do you have any other famous sayings I have failed to mention?

Let me know in the comments!

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Famous Sayings and Their Bizarre Origins!
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Famous Sayings and Their Bizarre Origins!
I love a good saying and try to use them often as I feel they provoke a good feeling and a sense of humour in conversation. Here are the famous sayings and their bizarre origins!
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Get post alerts :
Famous Sayings and Their Bizarre Origins!
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Famous Sayings and Their Bizarre Origins!
I love a good saying and try to use them often as I feel they provoke a good feeling and a sense of humour in conversation. Here are the famous sayings and their bizarre origins!
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Blog News Weekly


  1. Ashley at Armadillo Bulldog
    August 1, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    I was in a debate recently about the origin of “more than one way to skin a cat” and we continued by discussing some of these sayings as well. This list sure would have come in handy!

    • blognewser
      August 2, 2018 at 9:48 am

      Haha yeah I actually missed that one! Very bizarre indeed

  2. Sharon
    August 2, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    Fun and interesting article!

    • blognewser
      August 2, 2018 at 7:52 pm

      Thank you!

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